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Faster AT&T 3G on its way, slowly

AT&T will make faster 3G technology available in six major cities this year with the rollout of HSPA 7.2, as well as backhaul deployment to cell sites to support mobile broadband demand.

Since I got my iPhone 3GS a couple of months ago, I've been wondering when I would really benefit from its highly anticipated faster 3G capability. I finally got the answer, and as it turns out, the wait is far from over.

AT&T announced Wednesday details of its rollout plans for High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2 3G technology. This is the next generation of 3G, and it offers up to 7.2Mbps data connection speeds (as opposed to the 2Mbps and 3.6Mbps of the current 3G).

(This is, of course, just the theoretical number. Typical real-world downlink and uplink speeds will likely be less than that depending on location, device, and overall traffic on the local wireless network at a given time. Nonetheless, this promises a significant boost. HSPA 7.2 is part of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) family of technologies, which include GSM, UMTS, and the Emerging LTE technology. HSPA 7.2 offers backward-compatibility, meaning it also works with existing 3G and 2G devices at the lower device-specific speed.)

According to the announcement, the new speed will be available by the end of the year. Unfortunately, it's available only in six cities in the U.S., including Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Los Angeles; and Miami. This means the rest of the country, including the San Francisco Bay Area where I am, must continue to wait.

The iPhone 3GS is a HSPA 7.2-compatible smartphone from AT&T. Dong Ngo/CNET

It's unclear how long the wait will be for the rest of the cities, but the company says it plans to deploy HSPA 7.2 in 25 of the nation's 30 largest markets by the end of 2010, and to reach about 90 percent of its existing 3G network footprint with HSPA 7.2 by the end of 2011.

While this is rather sad news for me, for most people it won't mean much, as chances are your phone is not compatible with the higher 3G speed. Currently, the iPhone 3GS is the only HSPA 7.2-ready smartphone I know that AT&T offers.

However, AT&T assures that it will offer more compatible devices with the rollout of HSPA 7.2. The company expects to have six HSPA 7.2-compatible smartphones in its device portfolio by the end of the year, as well as two new LaptopConnect cards.

The rollout of HSPA 7.2 is part of AT&T's plan to invest some $18 billion this year, of which more than two-thirds is going toward broadband and wireless. Key projects of this investment include, in AT&T's words:

  • An initiative to substantially expand the wireless spectrum serving 3G customers in hundreds of markets across the country, using high-quality 850MHz spectrum. This additional spectrum expands overall network capacity and improves in-building reception. Deployments of this 850MHz spectrum are about 90 percent complete today, with local rollouts recently completed in New York, Atlanta, and Houston.
  • Addition of about 2,000 new cell sites to AT&T's network in 2009, expanding service to new cities and improving coverage in other areas.
  • Enabling widespread access to AT&T's Wi-Fi network to qualifying customers, allowing them to take advantage of the best available AT&T mobile broadband connection.
  • Preparation for field trials of 4G LTE wireless networks next year, with deployment planned to follow in 2011. This schedule aligns with industry expectations of when a wide variety of compatible 4G wireless devices will be available.

It's unclear, but I really hope this development also means the existing lower speed 3G will be improved. It has been slow and unreliable for a long time in many parts of the country.